Question: I have a four-year-old child who is very shy and has not spoken a word to me or any of the children since September. She will participate in individual activities, but not usually group activities. We’ve talked and talked to her, asked her questions, tried to be stern with her, but nothing works. Her mother even came in one day, but she wouldn’t even talk with her there. Do you have any ideas?

Polly Greenberg:
I once had a child who didn’t speak from September to January. I had made friends with her, been gentle with her, not pushed. I had tried partnering her with two children who chatted abundantly, with one child who chatted abundantly, and with another child who seldom spoke. Of course I wondered about her hearing.

In January, just before I filled out the forms to have her hearing tested, it occurred to me to visit her at home to see if she talked there. Wow! She greeted me warmly when I arrived at the appointed time, chattered away as she showed me her toys, and talked merrily with her siblings.

But the next day at school, and every day in the remainder of the month, she didn’t talk. However, now that I knew she could talk well enough, I no longer worried. Instead I figured out two nonverbal ways to “talk” with her.

1. When she began a game or pretend play, I silently joined her. Without a word, but with many a smile, I fit into her play. She was so pleased! We were communicating pleasurably.

2. We are taught never to draw on a child’s picture, or paint on his painting. Basically, this is correct; it’s his creation. And I didn’t draw on this child’s picture or paint on her painting. I invited her to play a story drawing game with me. I said, “Once upon a time” and began to spin a tale, using a crayon to sketch simple symbols, or to show running, for example, by racing the crayon around the paper; nothing very representational that might be intimidating. “Then what happened?” I would say. In February she verbalized a few ideas. In March she answered in words when I approached her during work time. In April she began talking to other children.

The moral of my story is that friendship, accompanied by reasonable trial and error strategies, often solves problems with children. We don’t always know why the problem existed or why what we did worked. C’est la vie.

For more advice by Polly, check out the Setting Limits column.